Reverend Gábor Iványi, president of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and executive director of the church’s aid organization Oltalom Karítativ Egyesület (OKE), invited members of the press for a briefing on Friday where he recapped the situation regarding his church and the activities of OKE. Iványi expressed solidarity with the NGOs currently under fire from the Orbán government. He asked God to bless the NGOs and George Soros of the Open Society Foundation, then demanded that the government repent for its sins.
The Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, a Methodist church, has existed in Hungary for over three decades, spanning back to communism. In the early 1980s, after facing years of persecution at the hands of Hungary’s communist party, the Fellowship finally came to be recognized by the state. Its so-called “church status” was retained and reaffirmed during Hungary’s democratic transition in 1989/1990, but was suddenly stripped during the second Orbán government with the passing of the Church Law of 2011.
Despite rulings by both Hungary’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that the church – and several other religious organizations – were unlawfully stripped of their official church status, the government has been unwilling to restore its status. Ultimately, this means the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and Oltalom Karítativ Egyesület cannot access subsidies otherwise granted to state-recognized churches for performing social work, operating schools, homeless and refugee shelters, homes for the elderly and other social services.
“Unfortunately we feel in our everyday lives the influence of OKE and the Fellowship not belonging among the government’s favored and supported civil organizations,” Iványi said.
Although it was officially incorporated on the eve of the system change in 1989, Iványi said OKE’s roots actually go back to 1979 when a group of leading activists and academics launched a movement called “Support for the Poor” (SZETA).
Its founders felt the need to launch SZETA because Hungary’s communist authorities refused to officially acknowledge that poverty existed. This, of course, meant the state had no policies to help those living in poverty, and merely mentioning its existence could land one in very serious trouble. So OKE, which included academics, clergy and activists, began to illegally document, study and provide aid to disenfranchised Hungarians.
SZETA operated under very harsh circumstances and was considered to be “illegal.” Iványi, who was among SZETA’s founders, alluded to early members being harassed by the authorities, including raids on their homes.
According to Iványi, the total amount of subsidies unlawfully stripped from the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship and OKE comes to HUF 1 billion per year.
OKE operates a shelter with 15 crisis beds to provide medical care to the homeless, and a medical clinic that treats some 5,000 homeless patients every year. On top of that, the organization provides dentistry services to some 500 homeless per year, skin disease treatment to 1,200 homeless per year, a 30-bed in-patient center that looks after 500 homeless people per year, plus a 20-bed psychiatric clinic and a 24-hour emergency ambulance service.
Combined, the organization’s two overnight homeless shelters provide 200 beds during the warmer season and 280 during the winter. Iványi says the two shelters are often operating beyond maximum capacity. The two daytime services provide shelter for 250. Two “social offices” provide social services to 3,600 annually, and the organization’s “community kitchen” distributes 150 meals per day.
They also offer a 50-bed transitional housing center for men and an additional 64 beds for the women’s program. The women’s transitional housing operates out of a city-owned location in downtown Budapest, right across the street from the Ministry of National Economy. The city is now suddenly trying to terminate its agreement with OKE for use of the property. Iványi says it is a very fitting location both because the women who live there can quickly access public transport and be anywhere in town quickly, and because it’s in clear view of the ministry.
OKE provides street aid to some 5,200 people, including legal assistance and spiritual care. It operates a 28-bed transition home for at-risk children and homes for the elderly in Budaörs (48 beds), Békéscsaba (29 beds), Esztergom (23 beds), Hetefejércse (32 beds) and Szolnok (50 beds).
Iványi’s organization provided aid to asylum-seekers during the refugee crisis and through 2016, not just in Hungary but in neighboring countries including Greece and Serbia, where many asylum-seekers were stranded after being prevented from crossing the border into Hungary. OKE has operated a refugee shelter since 1993.
God bless the NGOs
After detailing the work of his church and its aid organization, Iványi addressed the government’s latest crackdown on Hungarian civil society.
“These civil organizations are doing outstanding work. Let me say, right here and right now, in front of all of you, God bless the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the other organizations, and God bless George Soros,” Iványi declared.
He encouraged the embattled NGOs to stand up against these attacks.
“Don’t start making excuses or avoiding the issue,” he implored. “The work these NGOs speaks for itself. These organizations were not founded in 2010 to undermine this government. It is important to remember one does not have to silence the media and civil society if they are right. When they start silencing the press, civil society, the opposition and even craft the election law to favor themselves, there is a huge problem. Sooner or later this will end very badly.”
Iványi continued by explaining that the Bible makes it clear the short life of humans is just long enough to provide an opportunity to repent.
“And that is what this government, Fidesz, and all those who were in power before and after the system change, need to do,” he said. “It is the goal of every government to flaunt its power, be they left or right, and try [to save money by not assisting] society’s most disenfranchised, those who are least capable of defending their own rights.
“I would like to see civil society take a strong stand. And I hope the sober and brave segment of society will stand with them. But one does not really need to be brave, one only needs to be righteous. Any normal government would express gratitude to its civil society because they undertake a range of activities on behalf of the state in a much more professional and humane manner.”
Iványi criticised CÖF, or Civil Unity Forum, a pro-government “NGO” that acts as a sort of umbrella organization for a range of pro-government groups, and compared it to the Patriotic People’s Front of the communist era (which essentially was the same thing to the Communist Party).
“Why are we returning [to the previous era] when we have already moved out of it?” Iványi asked, comparing today’s Hungary to the Hungary of the past.
“There is a passage in the Bible which says that it is strange that the freshly-bathed pig would return to the mud. Those who washed the pig should not let it return to the mud. The same passage also mentions the dog that eats its own vomit. But these are not my words, these are from the Bible.
“Let’s not return to the period before the system change, let’s not go back to the 1930s and let’s not go back to the 19th century. These times have passed and they enveloped this nation in shame. There will be no renewal if we move backwards. Why is it that we have to be brave now to say this out loud? Why? Let’s not return to those times, those times have already passed.”
Iványi also criticised the government’s handling of the refugee crisis, the hypocrisy of simultaneously running the controversial residency bond program, and for bearing false witness regarding the plight of the asylum-seekers. According to him, the government misrepresented the refugee crisis to the Hungarian people, and in the process subjected asylum-seekers to unconscionable treatment.
Iványi has referenced the double standard with which the government has treated asylum-seekers compared to other criminal offenders. For example, he condemns the recent sentencing of a Syrian national on terrorism charges to ten years in prison for throwing rocks at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, while a camera operator for a radical right-wing news site was given only probation for kicking and tripping refugees, including children. He draws attention to the acquittal of those participating in riots in Budapest in 2006, or the early release from prison of an Azerbaijani axe murderer, as examples of the hypocrisy of the government when it come to treatment of refugees.
“Giving false testimony clashes with one of the Ten Commandments,” he said. “So, I see very serious problems in our country and in the behavior of our leaders, and we should not stay quiet about this. If civil organizations are talking about these issues and even helping alleviate the damage, then that is a very welcoming thing and may God continue to bless that work.
“And the government should repent. Once the government repents and starts doing a better a job, then it will be difficult to oust them in a fair election. If after repenting the government can win in a fair election, then they deserve it, and they should continue to serve us.”